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Theater Program for Low Income Kids Rewrites Script on Possibilities

October 6, 2016Posted by Helaina Hovitz

For many children in this country, opportunity is few and far between.

Their voices are rarely heard, their personal struggles are passed over, and the adults in their lives make all of the decisions—and lack thereof—for them.

Fortunately, one Washington, D.C. nonprofit has been changing the script for thousands of kids from communities that are often overlooked. Primarily, these students are considered “low-income,” with 77% qualifying for the statewide free and reduced-price lunch program and 20% speaking English as their second language.

Students who participate in Young Playwrights’ Theater (YPT) are encouraged to write about whatever they want, often tackling issues of personal significance. The program continues both in school and after-school for an entire semester, and, at its conclusion, students either perform the play themselves, or the nonprofit brings in professional actors to do it for them.

Data has shown that the majority of the 1,500 students ages 8-21 who participate each year are ultimately more confident, get better grades, and feel that they can pursue careers that once felt out of reach.

Cecilia Cackley, a professional playwright and director for the in-school playwriting program, recalls a fourth grade student from last year who had come to the United States the year before from El Salvador with almost “no literacy at all.”

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During the English class period during which the YPT class took place, a specialist usually took her to another classroom.

One day, when her specialist was absent, she stayed for the class, and although she was “behind” the rest of the group, she started writing a monologue and tried to make it her best work.

“From then on, she always asked the specialist if she could stay and participate when YPT came, which really touched me a lot,” said Cackley.

“We live in a world where children and teens have very little power, and we give back a of it back by asking them to write about whatever they want, no matter how silly, sad, or challenging.”

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The stories speak for themselves: Jarid Shields wrote a play about social anxiety disorder that was produced in the program’s New Play Festival this past spring. She just began her freshman year at George Washington University with a full ride.

Manuel Hernandez participated in YPT when he was a recent immigrant just learning English, and his play, Letter of Hope, about his immigration experience was professionally produced in 2005. He studied Music Education in college, and now teaches students to express themselves creatively at DC Bilingual Public Charter School.

For Christina Daly, her son Cristian’s participation was about much more than just writing and performing: it was about what possibilities might life hold for him. She’s a single parent whose job often takes her to new places, and it took her from Washington D.C. back to El Paso after Cristian was interviewed by YPT about potentially being included.

“I remember the day he came home from school, he wanted so desperately to be selected, but it was a pipe dream, and didn’t think his play would be chosen,” she said, going on to describe her 11-year-son as an incredibly expressive child with an amazing imagination.

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“When we received the notice, he was so happy because he felt like people knew who he was and his work was appreciated. I knew I had to take him back to receive his recognition. It was one of the best decisions I ever made, for his self-esteem and his confidence.”

They made the trip to Washington DC just for that.

“Being recognized by the YPT has given Cristian a tremendous sense of accomplishment and pride,” she said. “Even though I always praised him…he figured I was just being the proud mommy. Now, the credentials are significant.”

Cristian recently asked his mother for an old-fashioned typewriter, and now sits in his “man-cave” (a space under his bed) and writes his stories on his typewriter, with aspirations to become the first 11-year-old to write a novel.

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High school student Jorge Martinez, who was brought into the program by a cousin who insisted he go “whether he liked it or not” was dealing with depression and low self-esteem at the time. He said he remembers feeling like life was throwing him things at him left and right, and that his grades “weren’t the best.”

Though he was nervous the first time he attended the workshop, he immediately saw what a welcoming and friendly group they were. He soon warmed up to the group and helped write and act out a different play about a monster high school where the monsters had “relatable problems” and explored different ways to deal with them.

“Thankfully I was able be in an environment where I could express my ideas without fear of being judged by others…and vent out my frustrations,” he said.  “Everyone was very welcoming and friendly, even though they had never met me before. We did warm ups that would seem silly to people that didn’t know what was going on and had a funny performance.”

Today, he still remembers that experience as one of the most amazing and memorable experiences of his life.

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“On opening night, I went up in front of a sold-out house and delivered my lines, and I felt like I did a mediocre job,” he said. “People quickly came up to me and told me how much of a good job I did. Ultimately, they led to a huge boost in my self-confidence and a desire to continue pursuing theatre and acting.”

Now, Jorge says, his life is pretty great, especially after deciding, armed with his newfound confidence, that he wants to pursue voiceover work as a career.

“I don’t want to stay stagnant. I want to continue to learn as much as I possibly can and be the best I can be.”

He also serves as a student leader in the program.

“I want to continue growing as an actor and a writer, but I think more importantly I want to provide guidance for other students who are maybe deciding on whether or not they want to continue down this path. I want to help students find confidence in themselves.”

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